—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
6 December 2005

Remembering the Armenian Genocide

An edited version of this article was published in the journal Arena in December 2006.

I say to you: he who does not know the truth is merely a fool. But he who knows it and calls it a lie, is a criminal.

- Bertolt Brecht, Life of Galileo, scene nine

On April 24 this year, Armenians at home and in the Diaspora commemorated the 90th anniversary of what was, at the time, the greatest massacre of the modern era: the systematic extermination of over one million Christian Armenians by the government of Ottoman Turkey beneath the umbra of World War I. On October 4 this year, less than six months after this anniversary, the Turkish government - which continues not only to deny the genocide, but actively sponsors mercenary academics to do so - was welcomed into accession talks to the EU. Plenty of thorny issues were placed on the agenda: human rights, Kurdish autonomy, the status of Cyprus, and so on. But the unacknowledged, and to this day, unpunished slaughter of a million Indo-European people scarcely registered on the political radar. It is said that it will take Turkey until at least 2015 before it becomes a member of the EU. If this predicted timetable turns out be accurate, it means that the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide will be commemorated alongside the grotesque spectacle of the perpetrator nation who says it never happened being welcomed into the community of nations that did nothing to prevent or punish it.

Few people know it today, but the expressions 'crimes against humanity' and 'genocide' were born of the annihilation of the Armenians. The former phrase first appeared in a document drafted by the Great Powers condemning the Turkish massacres,[1] and the latter neologism was coined by the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin with the Armenian precedent in mind.[2] Furthermore, the fact that world forgot (and left unavenged) the twentieth century's first genocide created an appalling precedent which gave a sense of impunity to the man who would go on to mastermind an even greater massacre. Eight days before invading Poland Adolf Hitler, addressing his military chiefs, asked 'Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?'[3] He was cruelly correct. Scarcely a generation before, Turkey had all but extirpated an ancient civilisation by perpetrating a nation-sized massacre and now few people cared about it or even remembered. Today, as the Turkish government continues its paroxysms of denial, it is time to remind ourselves of what happened to Armenia and why the world must not allow Turkey to deny it.

Prelude to Genocide

Armenia was the world's first Christian state, founded in 301 AD, eleven years before Constantine triumphed in battle at the Milvian Bridge and became the first Christian Roman Emperor. For centuries the Armenians managed to retain not only their Christian heritage but a quasi-European culture that remained intact even hundreds of years after the Ottoman armies had rolled over eastern Anatolia and swallowed their territory. It was precisely this 'European' and 'Christian' identity which was to imperil them.

By the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman empire - dubbed 'the sick man of Europe' - was crumbling. Greece had been lost in 1832 and agitation for freedom in the Balkan states so alarmed the Sultan that he savagely crushed a May 1876 insurrection in Bulgaria by killing more than 15,000 civilians. The 'Bulgarian horrors' so scandalized Europe that Britain and France intervened in an attempt to secure reforms for the decaying empire's suffering subjects. Two weeks after Turkey rejected the move, denouncing the reforms as 'derogatory to the Sultan's dignity and independence',[4] the Russians finally ran out of patience and invaded. Within a year, Turkey was suing for peace in order to prevent a Russian march on Constantinople. Under the humiliating terms of the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano, the empire disgorged Romania, Montenegro and Serbia as independent states, while Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina gained autonomy.[5] The Armenian provinces in the eastern Anatolia, however, were a different matter.

Alarmed by the Czar's encroachment into the east, the British government under Disraeli sought to check Russian influence over one of its main trade routes and forcibly intervened to have the Treaty of San Stefano renegotiated as the Treaty of Berlin. Article 61 of the latter Treaty infamously reversed article 16 of the former: instead of Russia only withdrawing when protection of the Armenians was established, Russia now withdrew unilaterally under British/Austrian influence. As for the reforms, they were left to the discretion of the Turkish government, with predictable results. In the years 1894-96 Sultan Abdul Hamid embarked on a wide-scale oppression of his Armenian subjects which claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 civilians.[6] It was not to be the last time, unfortunately, that European realpolitik betrayed the Armenians.

Thus on the eve of World War I, an increasingly nationalist, paranoid and shrinking Turkish Empire had grown to loathe European influence in its 'internal' affairs of state, and accordingly came to view the Christian Armenians living within its borders not only as infidels, but as a fifth column whose 'European-ness' threatened to shrink their dominion further. This poisonous view grew in scale despite the reality that there had been no secessionist movement among the Armenian population, and hardly any cooperation between them and the Russian invaders. In order to solve the 'Armenian Question', however, the Young Turk government resolved to carry out a systematic slaughter on a scale that the world had never seen before.

The extermination

In February 1915, while World War I was raging across the continent, a meeting took place between what historian Vahakn Dadrian describes as 'five top decision makers and power-wielders of Turkey'.[7] Among them was Talaat Pasha, the interior minister whose coded telegrams ordering the extermination of the Armenians surfaced sensationally during the trial of his assassin in 1921.[8] The purpose of the conference was to plan and organise the implementation of the genocide. The decision was thus taken at the highest levels of the Turkish government's CUP (Committee for Union and Progress). This meeting was to be the Turkish Wannsee.

The planning was meticulous. A unit obliquely named the Special Organization (SO), which 'consisted almost entirely of convicted criminals'[9] was specifically created to assist in liquidating the target population. This taskforce was deployed mainly in the eastern regions, where, according to a captain in the Intelligence Dept which trained them, it was responsible for 'perpetrating the worst crimes against the Armenians'[10] Furthermore, the government saw to it that the target population was made as defenseless as possible: Turkish authorities confiscated any arms found in Armenian towns, and Armenians in the Turkish army were similarly disarmed and made to serve exclusively in labour battalions.

The means of extermination consisted of forced death marches, starvation, mass deportations (typically into the Syrian desert, and sanctioned under a special law passed in May 1915), and outright massacre. A notorious document authored by the CUP in December 1914 / January 1915 and acquired by the British High Commission in Constantinople consisted of a sequence of lavishly savage instructions. Among the 'ten commandments' (as the orders became known) were the instructions to 'send [Armenians] into the provinces such as Baghdad or Mosul and wipe them out either on the road or there'; 'excite Moslem opinion [and] provoke organised massacres'; 'apply measures to exterminate all males under 50, priests and teachers, leave girls and children to be Islamized'; 'kill off in an appropriate manner all Armenians in the army',[11] and so on.

An assiduous sadism characterised the massacres. Dr. Mehmed Reshid, governor of Diyarbekir province, was known to have crucified Armenians and nailed horseshoes to their feet before marching them through the streets.[12] In the Ankara region Rev. Krikoris Balakian described Armenians being hacked to pieces, with infants being bashed against rocks before the eyes of their mothers.[13] During 1915-16 Viscount Bryce compiled the famous 'Blue Book', a 677-page volume[14] of letters from Armenians and foreign witnesses describing the Turkish campaign. One passage from an Armenian clergyman, selected almost at random, relates the following:

One thousand six hundred Armenians have had their throats cut in the prisons at Diyarbekir. The Arashnort [a local prelate] was mutilated, drenched with alcohol, and burnt alive in the prison yard, in the middle of a carousing crowd of gendarmes, who even accompanied the scene with music. The massacres at Benianai, Adiaman and Selefka have been carried out diabolically; there is not a single man left above the age of thirteen years; the girls have been outraged mercilessly; we have seen their mutilated corpses tied together in batches of four, eight or ten, and cast into the Euphrates. The majority had been mutilated in an indescribable manner.[15]
On the night of April 24 1915, Talaat's Interior Ministry ordered the roundup of 250 Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople. Church leaders, artistic luminaries, political and civic figures were arrested and deported to the interior where they were later tortured and killed. The extirpation of the centre of Armenian cultural, political and spiritual life was plainly intended to deliver a fatal blow to the Armenian world. With the leadership gone, there would be nobody to speak for, represent, or even remember the Armenians. What remained would be just the amorphous masses, with no organisational capacity, and ripe for the picking. Moreover, the instantaneous removal of a disparate collection of non-militant individuals who had no history of sedition and plainly posed no existential threat to the Turkish state clearly demonstrates that the Ottoman government's plan to ablate the Armenian organ from the Turkish body politic was not considered a military necessity but an ethnic one.

Significantly, one of the CUP's 'ten commandments' stated: 'All action to begin everywhere simultaneously, and thus leave no time for preparation of defensive measures'[16] Thus, by this expedient, it had come about that by the end of 1915 somewhere between 800,000 and one million Armenians had died under the Turkish onslaught.[17] In the end, only a few outposts managed to hold out against all odds. The denizens of the city of Van and the hilltop of Musa Dagh resisted a sustained Turkish siege in 1915. Notably, however, in both cases they were eventually saved only by external intervention (the Russian army relieved Van, and Musa Dagh's population were evacuated via allied warships).

The sheer scale of the massacres horrified Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador in Constantinople. Despite Turkish censorship of messages from his diplomatic underlings in the interior, the terrible stories nonetheless trickled into his office via other routes, sometimes related in person by witnesses. His subsequent entreaties to the Turkish authorities to stop the violence fell on deaf ears, and he found himself profoundly frustrated by diplomatic protocol. 'It is difficult for me' he explained in a cable to Washington, 'to restrain myself from doing something to stop this attempt to exterminate a race'.[18] Nevertheless, he and other witnesses succeeded in making the outside world aware of what was going on, to the extent that the genocide became almost an idée fixe for the New York Times. Throughout 1915, it published 145 accounts[19] of progressive slaughter under such headlines as ARMENIANS SENT TO PERISH IN DESERT (August 18); ONLY 200,000 ARMENIANS NOW LEFT IN TURKEY (October 22) and MILLION ARMENIANS KILLED OR IN EXILE (December 15).[20]

Escape from Justice

The denouement? Eastern Anatolia, home to the Armenian people for 3000 years, was ethnically cleansed within just 12 months. Over a million Armenians had died, nearly all of whom perished through starvation and murder. The terrain itself was now a wasteland of smouldering towns and desecrated churches, where 'everywhere one passes corpses lying unburied in the open'.[21] Nor did the Turks stop there.

In 1917 the Bolshevik revolution toppled the Czarist monarchy in Russia, and in 1919 Mustafa Kemal came to power in Turkey. These two juntas sealed the fate of Armenia. The Bolshevik state, weakened by World War I, began to disgorge parts of the overextended Russian empire, and the Armenian territories previously under its wing were now cast adrift. As Russian forces withdrew from the provinces of Van, Erzurum, Bitlis and Trebizond, the Turks moved in and the Armenians fled. By May 1918 a tiny, landlocked area declared its independence as the Republic of Armenia. It was not to be left in peace, however: Kemalist forces moved to attack it in September 1920. Facing permanent extinction by the Turks, Armenia accepted Russian suzerainty and became a Soviet republic one tenth the size of its historical homeland. Armenian independence, last established in 1375, had lasted less than two years.[22]

A ravaged and vulnerable postwar Armenia was thus left to the tender mercies of the Turkish government because, as Peter Balakian has observed, 'no foreign power was willing to accept a mandate for Armenia.'[23] This failure of the international community would be repeated in the judicial arena. Although there was initially strong will on the part of Britain, France and Russia to bring the perpetrators of the genocide to justice, it soon deliquesced to nothing. During 1919 the Turks were permitted to try their own citizens, with predictable results. Only Kemal Bey was hanged for his crimes; the few other death sentences handed down were unenforceable since they applied to men who had already fled the country. Amid the rising tide of Kemalist nationalism, the courts began to weaken, and in May-June 1919, eighty-six of the accused were released.[24] An outraged Britain, which still had 320,000 soldiers in Turkey, moved the remaining prisoners to Malta with a view to bringing them before an international tribunal. This idea died in 1920 when the Turkish detainees became part of a prisoner swap following the seizure of 29 British soldiers by Kemal. With this last sickening lurch, the inertia of international justice ran out. There would be no revanchism for the Armenians.


Today, despite the fact that the Armenian genocide is recognized by nine states in the European Union - to which Turkey is applying for membership - the Turkish government continues to live in a parallel universe in which no such event took place. Ankara sponsors historians-for-hire in the United States to deny the genocide and has been active in suppressing films and Congressional bills which would have affirmed the Armenian holocaust.[25] In an infamous incident in 1990, author Robert Jay Lifton (who had repeatedly referred to the Armenian genocide in his book The Nazi Doctors) received a critical letter from the Turkish ambassador to Washington. Incredibly, the ambassador had accidentally enclosed in the envelope the original draft of the letter, which turned out to have been written for him by Heath Lowry, Professor of Turkish studies at Princeton.[26] From 1974, Turkish representatives at the UN insisted that all references to the Armenian genocide be expunged from paragraph 30 of the UN document on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Books and literature on the genocide are still banned in Turkey, and in September of this year the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was thrown in jail on charges of 'insulting the Republic of Turkey'[27] for merely mentioning the event to a journalist. Needless to say, this chronicle of strong-arm measures is hardly redolent of an innocent nation that has nothing to fear from a free and open debate on the matter.

The Armenians in the village of Tash Punar who were slaughtered with 'hatchets and axes as the victims kept screaming like birds'[28] might, in their dying minutes, have entertained the hope that someone, somewhere would attain justice for them. It never happened. The Armenian professors from Marsovan who in June 1915 were made to kneel before their own mass grave before being knifed and axed to death[29] might similarly have hoped in their final moments that the world would at least not forget a crime on this scale. But it was forgotten. As Turkey now tries to shoulder its way into Europe while hysterically denying the established fact of this genocide, over one million dead souls await the final verdict of history. We must not forget them. We cannot fail them again.

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1 The relevant passage refers to 'those new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization' [my emphasis]. The document was drafted by France, Britain and Russia on 24 May 1915, even before the massacres had reached their apogee. Quoted in Israel W. Charny, Encyclopedia of Genocide, Vol 1, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA, 1999, p. 82
2 See Samantha Power, 'A problem from Hell': America and the Age of Genocide, Basic Books, New York, 2002, Ch. 2
3 Quoted in Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: the Armenian Genocide and America's Response, HarperCollins, New York, 2003. p. 165. See also Power, p. 23; Charny, p. 64
4 Quoted in Vahakn Dadrian, History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus, Berghahn Books, Oxford, 1997, p. 31
5 See Balakian, p. 38
6 In the province of Van alone it was estimated by British Vice-Consul Williams that 350 villages had been destroyed and 20,000 people killed (See Balakian, p. 61). The massacres were notably sectarian in nature. In the village of Semal which had defended itself from Kurdish gendarmes, the priest who led the Armenian surrender had his eyes gouged out and was bayoneted to death. In Aintab, an English couple described mutilated Christians walking the streets being taunted by the Turks with cries of: 'Where is your Jesus? Why does He not save you?' A dog tied to the back of a donkey was led about the town, the procession accompanied by calls of 'Make way for Queen Victoria.' (See Balakian, p. 55, 82)
7 See Dadrian, p. 219, 226 n1
8 See Balakian, p. 345-7
9 Dadrian, p. 236
10 Quoted in Dadrian, p. 239
11 Quoted in Balakian, p. 189/190
12 See Balakian, p. 164
13 See Balakian (Peter), p. 245
14 See Robert Fisk, 'Why the Armenian Holocaust must not be airbrushed from history', Independent, 27 November 2000
15 '16 August 1915, Letter from Cilicia', in Ara Sarafian (Ed.) The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-16: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Falloden by Viscount Bryce, Taderon press, Reading, 2000. p. 61
16 Quoted in Balakian, p. 190
17 See Balakian, p. 179
18 Quoted in Power, p. 8
19 See Power, p. 9; Balakian, p. 282
20 Quoted in Charny, p. 74
21 Quoted in 'Armenian Victim, Town of Harpout', Sarafian (Ed.) The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire ..., p. 297
22 See Balakian, Ch. 24
23 Balakian, p. 325
24 See Balakian, p. 341
25 In 1934 Turkey intervened to halt MGM's plans to film The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Franz Werfel's story about the siege of an Armenian community; and '[t]he Turkish government successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress against passing a bill commemorating the seventieth and, later, the seventy-fifth anniversaries of he Armenian genocide.' (Balakian, p. 385)
26 See Roger W. Smith, Erick Markusen and Robert Jay Lifton, 'Professional Ethics and the denial of the Armenian Genocide', in Richard G. Hovanissian (Ed.), Remembrance and Denial: The case of the Armenian Genocide, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1998, Ch. 12
27 See, for example, 'Turkey must relent', Spectator, 10 September, 2005
28 Quoted in Balakian, p. 336
29 See Suzanne Elizabeth Moranian, 'Bearing Witness: The Missionary Archives as Evidence of the Armenian Genocide' in Richard G. Hovanissian (Ed.), The Armenian Genocide: History, Politics, Ethics, p. 113